Luke backs his cool head in the heat

Going to America: Entering the Tiger's lair holds no fear for the rookie from Beaconsfield who thrives on the big time
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The Independent Online

Are Luke Donald and Harry Potter in any way related? Donald will make his debut as a full member of US PGA Tour at the Hawaiian Open early next month after successfully negotiating the tortuous Qualifying School a fortnight ago. It does not get more magical than that for a 24-year-old who only turned professional in August and surely matches young Potter's trick of marching up to platform nine and three-quarters at King's Cross and jumping on the Hogwarts Express.

Donald's preferred mode of transport around his home town of High Wycombe this Christmas will be the Maserati provided for him by a generous sponsor last week. If they have faith in the abilities of the Beaconsfield golfer to live up to all the hype, that is nothing compared to the faith Donald has in himself to survive on the US Tour, the deepest of deep ends to be flung into during a rookie season. "I have no real doubts about it," Donald said. "I have had a lot of success in the US already and wanted to give it a try on the US Tour. I am looking forward to having a full year to work at it and am hoping to do well, maybe even win a couple of events."

This last observation is stated with the right kind of quiet confidence rather than arrogance, even if it has to be pointed out that the combined tally of US wins for Britain's current leading trio of Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood is two (Monty, famously, being the odd one out). But then none of them has played in the States full time and if Donald appears to be short-circuiting the system by skipping his European Tour traineeship, he has the credentials to attempt to do so.

In four years at Northwestern University in Chicago, Donald won 13 times, including the prestigious NCAA crown in 1999. "Seeing players I have played against in college do well as professionals makes me believe I can be successful, too," Donald said. David Gossett, the 1999 US Amateur champion, won the John Deere Classic on the US Tour while Charles Howell, who succeeded Donald as NCAA champion, earned over $1.5 million playing on invitations last season.

In the end-of-season world rankings, Howell was ranked 45th and Gossett 104th. The other under-25s to feature are Sergio Garcia (sixth), Adam Scott (49th) and Paul Casey (92nd). There was a point in their college careers when Donald and Casey were ranked Nos 1 and 2. Casey turned professional last winter and became this year's rookie of the year in Europe after winning the Scottish PGA and getting an honourable mention in Sam Torrance's wild card ponderings.

Scott decided to develop his game in Europe while his fellow Australian prodigy, Aaron Baddeley, went to the States. Playing on a limited number of invitations, Baddeley flopped and failed even to get his card at the Qualifying School. Where Donald, who made three cuts in seven invitations at the end of last season, has the advantage this year is in being able to plan his schedule. After a few weeks rest, he will fly to the States two days after Christmas. He will continue to base himself in Chicago, near friends from college and his coach, Pat Goss. Elder brother Christian will be a constant companion and caddie, while his degree in fine art – he paints in oils – he hopes will help fill in the hours on Tour not spent playing, practising or travelling.

"By looking at what events last year's Qualifying School graduates got into you can pretty much work out a schedule," he said. "I would love to come back and play a couple of events in Europe but it all depends on how I start in the States. Obviously, the most important thing is to keep my card because there is no way I want to go back to the Tour School.

"That's a big motivation for next season. People warned me it would be tough but it was the most pressure I have ever felt on a golf course. But I probably played some of my best golf of the year that week and to perform like that under such pressure is a big boost."

Having sailed through two pre-qualifiers, it was a 65 in the third round of the six-day marathon at Bear Lakes in Florida that put Donald in contention for one of the 35 cards on offer. Two solid rounds of 70 and 69 gave him a share of 23rd place. Remarkably, he had only six bogeys all week and did not drop a shot over the crucial last 36 holes.

"My steadiness and consistency arew two of my strengths," Donald said. "I have a good head on my shoulders and don't make many mistakes. I am good at controlling my distances and try to stay calm and patient, although I didn't feel very calm inside at the end of the Tour School. At the 17th I had a six-footer for a birdie and I knew it would be a vital cushion up the last. I realised it was 'crunch time' and fortunately it went in."

Further evidence that Donald reacts well at such moments came in the Walker Cup at Sea Island in August, his last amateur engagement. In the first-day singles he came from three down after five to beat Jeff Quinney when the States could have run away with the session, then he led the charge to victory by beating America's form player, Lucas Glover, with the best golf of the weekend.

Peter McEvoy had stated that Donald was his most accomplished player and Donald duly delivered. "It meant a lot to be part of the first Great Britain and Ireland team to retain the Cup," Donald said. "It was great to be a part of history. It was a great team effort and a great experience."

At the Asprey and Garrard awards last week, where Retief Goosen was voted golfer of the year, McEvoy was honoured on behalf of his team. After noting how much it was appreciated by the young amateurs that so many of the top professionals, including the Ryder Cup captain, sent messages of support and congratulations, McEvoy was unequivocal in stating: "The best generation of British and Irish players has just turned professional." That group includes Casey, Nick Dougherty, Scotland's Steven O'Hara and, most certainly, the young wizard himself, Luke Donald.